If you can imagine Jack Palance in an ornery mood, then you get the idea behind the Jeep Wrangler.
Available with a 180-hp 6-cylinder engine, the Wrangler has a gruff, distinctive look that is completely unlike anything on the road.
It would be wise to remember, however, that the Wrangler is not a sports car. Let’s repeat that now: The Wrangler is not a sports car. What it is is the nearest living relative of the World War II Jeep, one of America’s most important contributions to automotive evolution, second only to the Ford Model T.
In concept, the G.I. Jeep wasn’t really all that far removed from the Model T - simple, rugged and capable of going just about anywhere. And the same can be said for the relationship between the World War II Jeep and the current Wrangler.
It was designed for off-road driving. Push it too hard on pavement and you are likely to discover the naughty side of physics, as well as the Wrangler’s limitations.
Many drivers have made these discoveries over the years. This could easily result in either a visit to the body shop, or your removal from humanity’s gene pool. Think of it as Wrangler Darwinism. It is not the Wrangler’s fault. It is driver confusion over the Wrangler’s role in the motoring world.
The base engine on the least expensive Wrangler - the S model - is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder rated at 123 hp at 5250 rpm, and 139 pound-feet of torque at 3250 rpm. It’s adequate for low-speed crawling, the kind of low-rpm motoring that goes with picking your way through rock piles or bogs. But unfortunately it runs out of wind very quickly in urban or freeway driving.
The more powerful - and highly recommended - engine is a 4.0-liter, in-line 6-cyliner rated at 180 hp at 4750 rpm, and 220 lb.-ft. at 4000 rpm.
That 4.0 is a slightly less powerful version of what’s available in Jeep’s Cherokee and Grand Cherokee lineups. It’s strong and durable, with lots of development time behind it, as well as a very good service record.
Both engines can be matched to a 3-speed automatic transmission and regardless of which one you choose, the towing limit is 2000 lb. The 4-wheel drive system is Jeep’s part-time Command-Trac, and you do have the option of 4-wheel anti-lock braking.
Wranglers come in three flavors for 1995 - the basic S model, SE and Sahara. There’s also a new Rio Grande Edition, which is essentially a graphics package complemented by Pueblo Cloth seats.
The standard top is a plastic-and-canvas affair. During a particularly violent rainstorm the model we tried worked well, although without air conditioning the Wrangler’s interior tends to get sauna-like on a warm day.
Did we say the plastic/canvas top worked well? Let’s qualify that. It worked well in the strict sense of keeping the occupants dry. But there are other measurements to apply here.
One of the attractions of the Wrangler is open-air motoring, but getting the top on and off is a bit of a project. Not quite like building a bridge, but close. A small bridge, maybe. It’s certainly not like flipping the top up and down on something like a Mazda Miata. Remember, the Wrangler is not a sports car.
I once watched two Jeep engineers struggle for 10 minutes to erect the top, an experience that seemed to entail a lesson: Even if you could carry two Jeep engineers around with you everywhere, you would still be likely to get wet during a sudden downpour.
So when you’re enjoying wind-in-the-hair in your Wrangler, it’s also a good idea to take a quick peek at the skies from time to time. Be prepared. Or better yet, avail yourself of the removable hardtop option.
There are four seats in the Wrangler, but this is really a vehicle for two people assuming comfort is a goal.
The front-passenger seat lifts up and tilts forward to allow relatively easy access to the backseat. Once here, however, anyone other than a gullible child will find it cramped, best reserved for storage.
It would also be best if the driver is not the proverbial tall drink of water. The problem is that the rearward seat-travel is restricted, and drivers 6-foot or taller are likely to feel they can’t get far enough away from the steering wheel, which extends back toward the driver on an over-long column.
The driving controls and the instruments are basic and lack the slick feel and convenience of modern passenger cars, although one can pass that off as character. It works for Ferrari.
All these little problems aside, there is still a quirky charm to the Wrangler, perhaps because it is so relentlessly inappropriate in an urban/suburban environment.
The ride is firm, and with a relatively short wheelbase (93.4 in.) there is a moderate amount of choppiness. When traveling over large bumps at normal speeds, the Wrangler’s trail actually hops a bit. Frankly, that trick is more attractive for the Easter Bunny than for a vehicle.
But overall, the Wrangler handles better than one would expect of an off-road vehicle. It changes direction fairly quickly, and once one becomes accustomed to the high center of gravity, confidence returns and it is possible to motor through traffic fairly briskly, although the steering feels too light.
Despite the Wrangler’s wind-blocking shape, the 4.0-liter moves it along quickly and, from a start in a straight line, it will surprise the owners of some sporty cars. The 4.0-liter is not particularly smooth, nor is it particularly quiet. But it is robust, and the Wrangler isn’t very heavy as off-road vehicles go.
In normal driving, the Wrangler is in rear-wheel drive. For nasty situations, a console-mounted lever is used to engage 4WD.
The 5-speed manual has longish throws and a workmanlike feel. The 3-speed automatic works well and is a nice alternative to the 5-speed, which hardly offers Miata-like joy. By the way, did we mention that the Wrangler is not a sports car?
If off-road driving is in your plan, the automatic is a good choice. Odd as it sounds, automatics are becoming increasingly popular for off-road because they reduce the chance of burning out a clutch and, overall, make life a little simpler.
An automatic transmission also means one less thing to worry about when you’re picking your way up and over nature’s nastiest terrain, something the Wrangler does quite well.
In the end, the Wrangler scores points because it bears the Jeep name and it offers a certain exclusivity. In fact, many Wrangler wranglers think this is the only "real" Jeep.
It also succeeds because it has no real competitors. Smaller sport/utilities such as the Suzuki Samurai, Geo Tracker, Suzuki Sidekick and Isuzu Amigo don’t measure up to the Wrangler’s range of capabilities. And the Land Rover Defender 90, which does measure up, costs about twice as much.
The Jeep Wrangler is not particularly comfortable. Nor is the Jeep Wrangler particularly luxurious. Its handling is adequate, but the potential for mayhem in the hands of an over-enthusiastic or inexperienced driver is frighteningly clear.
As a matter of fact, the Jeep Wrangler is simply awash in impracticalities. But what works here is mystique, and there is not denying that for many people, that’s a pretty important part of driving.
|Model Line Overview |
|Base Price (MSRP) |
|Model lineup: |
|4.0-liter, 12-valve OHV I-6¾ 190 hp, 225 lb.-ft. |
|3-speed automatic |
|Safety equipment (Standard): |
|Safety equipment (Optional): |
|Basic warranty: |
|3 years/36,0000 miles |
|Assembled in: |
|Toledo, Ohio |
|Specifications As Tested |
|Model tested (MSRP): |
|Standard equipment: |
|Options as tested: |
|Destination charge: |
|Gas Guzzler Tax: |
|Price as tested (MSRP) |
|2.5-liter 4-cylinder |
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm): |
|123 @ 5250 |
|Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): |
|139 @ 3250 |
|5-speed manual |
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: |
|19 / 20 mpg. |
|93.4 in. |
|151.9 / 66.0 / 69.5 in. |
|Track, f/r: |
|57.0 / 57.0 in. |
|Turning circle: |
|Seating capacity: |
|Head/hip/leg room, f: |
|41.4 / 53.6 / 39.4 in. |
|Head/hip/leg room, m: |
|Head/hip/leg room, r: |
|Cargo volume: |
|Towing capacity: |
|800 lbs. |
|Suspension F: |
|Front-Live axle, longitudinal leaf springs, 1.18-in. stabilizer bar |
|Suspension R: |
|Rear-Live axle, longitudinal leaf springs, track bar |
|Ground clearance: |
|Curb weight: |
|2934 lbs. |
|Brakes, f/r: |
|11.0-in. diameter ventilated discs/9.0-in. diameter drums in. |
|Fuel capacity: |
|15.0 gal. |